Spud-based research taking root at University of Lethbridge

Potatoes are inspiring millions of dollars of investment in research and infrastructure in southern Alberta.

Potatoes inspire millions of dollars of investment in research and infrastructure in southern Alberta

Dmytro Yevtushenko took up his position as the potato science research chair last year, but will be getting his work started in the lab this month. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Lab-based research gets underway Monday at the University of Lethbridge for the school's new research chair in potato science.  

Dmytro Yevtushenk​o is a plant biologist who has studied potatoes for more than 25 years. He took up the new research chair position last January.

"It's a pleasure to work with potatoes. There's so much information out there about potatoes," said Yevtushenk​o.  

His first year was spent crafting new courses that will train the university's students in aspects of potato science. The hope from industry stakeholders is that it will entice new people into the business. 

"We have a shortage of people in the agriculture industry. And our task, our purpose, is to prepare employees, new scientists," said Yevtushenko. 

The research chair and his program are funded by Cavendish, the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA), McCain Foods and Lamb Weston. 

Alberta research needs to catch up

"[The program] will develop specific potato professionals," said Lee Gleim, the director of operations for Cavendish Farms in Lethbridge.

Gleim said the hope is that this research program will help move western potato research up to a level that parallels what is already seen in other parts of the country. 

"A lot of the potato research done in Canada today is done on the eastern side of Canada. We wanted something specific to southern Alberta. And being involved in his project has allowed us to do that. It's going to give us specific potato research based on the local geographical region," Gleim said. 
Cavendish Farms will begin construction on a $350-million processing plant in Lethbridge, Alta. this spring. (The Associated Press)

Yevtushenk​o has his first graduate student starting work Monday and they will be studying the physiological age of seed potatoes. The benefit being that if they can more accurately hone the aging of seed potatoes, they can be more efficiently grown because crops will sprout and germinate at the same time. 

The team will also be looking at various potato diseases. 

Yevtushenk​o estimates that he will have roughly a dozen research assistants working under him by the time the project is at full capacity. 

Not the only department interested in spuds

While Yevtushenk​o is just getting his lab-based research off the ground, professor Dan Johnson has been spending a significant amount of time in potato fields since 2013.

Johnson, an entomologist by trade, has been keeping an eye on the insect psyllid, which is found in southern Alberta, but in very small numbers. 

"We've been monitoring for it since 2013. It's a laborious process and we know the numbers are very low, but we do have it," said Johnson.

The concern is that the psyllid can carry a pathogen that causes a disease called zebra chip. Zebra chip can wipe out crops in one fell swoop, as has been seen in New Zealand and the United States. 
Zebra chip, carried by psyllids, has caused millions of dollars in losses for potato farmers in New Zealand and the United States. Warmer environmental conditions is responsible for the expanded range of the insects. (Dan Johnson/University of Lethbridge)

"It is a problem that has to be watched for and managed. Partly because the solutions themselves can be problems as well," said Johnson.

"So the whole thing has to be approached with a certain amount of nuance and science so we don't make the situation worse."

There's big money in spuds

Alberta is the province with the third largest production capacity, behind Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. Alberta's potatoes are valued at almost a billion dollars. More than 80 per cent of those potatoes are then further processed. 

"We need to remember that the potato is the No. 4 food source in the world," Yevtushenk​o said. 

The investment in Alberta-based research comes hand-in-hand with infrastructure expenditures in the area. In late 2016, Cavendish announced that they were building a $350-million processing plant in Lethbridge.

Construction is due to start this spring. 

"It's a pretty good sector of the agriculture industry. It's steadily growing. With other sectors of the economy, you see it going up and down. [The potato sector] it's not very fast but it is steadily growing," said Yevtushenko. 

About the Author

Sarah Lawrynuik reports on climate change and is now based in Winnipeg, Man. after five years of calling Calgary home. She's covered news stories across Canada and around the world, including in France, Hungary, Ukraine and Iraq. She has worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.